The Balcony

Tel Aviv, undated.

There was no real living room in our no. 14 Nahmani home.  On the left side of the dining room with its round table, buffet and gramophone,  there was the master bedroom. On its right, a wide folding door opened to father’s study. There was, however,  a  comfortably sized balcony, overlooking the garden. It  stretched along the dining room with its large windows on either side of a glass paneled double door, letting in a  great deal of light.

The balcony was fenced by a row of curved pillars in the popular classic style, creating   a surface for  my much-admired collection of small cactus plants. On the  left-hand corner of the balcony stood a thriving  potted gum tree. The remaining area allowed for the appropriate furniture – a wicker table and a couple of wicker armchairs, a striped canvas deck chair  and enough room for additional chairs and stools.

The balcony offered all kinds of diversions. It was the most suitable place to play snakes and ladders with Onkel Franz  who later taught me to play Rummy. Another pastime was a shouting match with the children on the third floor of the house next door.

One typical episode concerned our mothers’ ages, and the older the more distinguished, of course.  It began with “my mother is twenty’ and ‘my mother is forty”. It didn’t take long  before both our mothers ages rose to one and two hundred.

When the stars came out on a summer’s night, father sometimes took me to the balcony.  That, he explained, pointing out the constellation of stars in the sky, is the Cassiopeia; and look, he then went on, that is the Great Bear. I listened, enchanted. There was magic in the silent, vast blue darkness of the night when father spoke.

The balcony was where the manicurist found it most convenient to do mother’s nails every Thursday morning.  Once her nails were shaped, polished and needed to dry, mother  waved her freshly manicured fingers, laughing as she  announced with a theatrical  gesture  the imagined  arrival of guests. “Geste kommen!” “Geste kommen!

The sound of shifted wicker furniture was the sound of father rising from one of these armchairs after reading his morning paper.  There were, of course, other reasons for father to leave the balcony. The discovery  in the newspaper of a new Hebrew word sent father  to his study for his  dictionary. I remember clearly the way he  pronounced his discovery, memorizing it. Teguvah! Teguvah! 

The new word meant “reaction”.

Tel Aviv, undated.
Tel Aviv, undated.

I have no record of father’s first Hebrew lessons.  There are, however, letters he wrote to mother during or after World War I, taking  some hilarious  liberties with Hebrew, mainly by literally translating from the German. But that was long ago, long before he passed both Hebrew and English language exams in Jerusalem for his license to practice law in Palestine. Long before he came to my aid when I prepared for my Hebrew grammar exam at school.

It must have been before  1920, that  he met in Berlin a Mr. Lubman from Rishon Le Zion who agreed to give him some Hebrew lessons. In an antiquarian and second-hand library, father came across a volume of  Bialik poetry. He  was intrigued. For his next lesson, he   asked his teacher to help him translate a poem of his choice into German. It  went  so well that father forgot all about his Hebrew lessons and with the help of Mr. Lubman translated 32 Bialik poems into German.

The poems of Hayyim Nachman Bialik were published in 1920 by the Berlin’s Welt-Verlag,  translated by Louis Weinberg, my father.

The room where father received his clients and visitors was  a comfortable,  pleasant  sitting room. By the window overlooking the garden stood a divan covered with a large kilim rug. A gilded Damascus copper plate with calligraphic Arabic inscriptions rested on mother of pearl inlaid legs. It served as   a coffee table with round copper plate ashtrays for guests and stood in the center of the carpeted room. Two simple black wooden armchairs with canvass backs and seats rested on either side of the Damascus coffee table


There were four  plain  black bookcases, packed with classic German literature, prose and poetry, illustrated history books,  the Encyclopedia Britannica, the German Brockhaus  and various dictionaries. All four bookcases,  as well as both armchairs, father made with the assistance of the mad carpenter  who claimed to be  mayor of  Tel Aviv and called himself  Dizengoff.

One  day, a black bakelite telephone was installed on top of a bookcase, out of reach for  small children. It was no use. I was determined to make a phone call, the way the grown-ups did. So  I climbed on a chair, picked up the phone and asked the operator for a number, much to the horror and amusement  of the grown-ups who turned up in time.  …

Even before I was able to read, I asked father permission to look at his illustrated books.  I remember sitting on the floor and picking out books with pictures.

Before Bauhaus arrived.
Before Bauhaus arrived.

There were  books with prints and engravings of  soldiers and kings, authors, painters and sculptors as well as some very uninteresting pictures of buildings. All black and white. Once  I was able to read I picked up a small black volume in Hebrew. It was a copy of the New Testament. The first page of St. Matthew began with an endless list of names, so I  gave up reading the rest of it.

A corridor which ran  from the front door to the bathroom divided the apartment into a Right Bank and a Left Bank. The Right Bank consisted  of the study, dining room, master bedroom and balcony and overlooked  Nahmani street, whereas the remaining rooms, such as the kitchen opened to the back terrace and another garden area. A  small dark passage on the left of the front door  provided  a wardrobe for  guests  which  led to a small bedroom under the  staircase to  the second floor. It was Yemima’s room. Yemima was mother’s live-in domestic help, our ozeret.   Her room  had a separate entrance from the kitchen terrace.

Yemima was a rather buxom Yemenite girl, very pretty with curly black hair. What sticks in my mind,  after so  many years,  is her cheerful disposition, the sound of her  laughter.  Yemima had a boyfriend. A  hairdresser.  His pomaded wavy hair was a shiny black.  One day, mother found Yemima and her hairdresser boyfriend in bed together. That was the sort of thing mother   would not tolerate.  Yemima had to go.

The next room along the corridor was the office, fitted with filing cabinet and Kappel  typewriter.  It was a long and narrow room with a large window, where Holzer,  father’s secretary, worked. Holzer was surely the ugliest man on Nahmani street if not in Tel Aviv. His hunchback protruded  in a sharp forward angle. His  huge nose with its large nostrils projected in a similar sharp forward angle, and he spoke with a nasal lisp. Holzer lived in a house on Montefiore street, right behind  ours. When father needed him on some special job,  all he had to do was to call : Holzer! Holzer!  and Holzer, who was surprisingly agile, came.

The now historic Kappel was the  machine on which father typed his poetry, translations of the better part of now classical modern  Hebrew poetry, his letters,  his researched story of the Warsaw Ghetto and  his novel in letters to “my daughter Hannah”. And so much else. It stood on a small desk by the window of that long narrow room between the wardrobe and the kitchen.

Father, who never seemed to have either bought or had a new suit made, used the same old Kappel for almost his entire  life. He handled that unwieldy  machine with  care, covering  it every night  with a special wooden hood. Father spent many years of his life at his venerated  Kappel,  and once  busy writing  he was deaf  to the world.

Photographs courtesy of Danny Shik. All rights reserved.